Everyone has a story about where they were when the world changed on September 11, 2001. It’s simultaneously the most upsetting, most uncomfortable, and most fascinating conversation to have—to hear what people remember, what they felt, and how they responded. Though it’s been nearly two decades, the reminders of that day are constant, and the pain is still fresh for many. The role of fiction, now and always, is to explore experiences, emotions, and the extent to which we can share our humanity. These profound, powerful, and perspective-shifting novels set on 9/11 and beyond do all of those things, and are valuable additions to any bookshelf.
Though every book on this list holds its own power and meaning, this one, in my opinion, is (if you’re comfortable with reading vivid details) the most affecting. As someone who grew up just outside of New York City with minimal memory of “before” and “during” but a real awareness of “after,” I have always felt a bit conflicted about my emotional response to 9/11. Don DeLillo’s novel perfectly captures the struggle to connect by switching his narrative between Keith, a man who escapes from the rubble, and his estranged wife, Lianne, who can never understand what he has been through beyond watching videos, reading articles, and hearing the stories of others. It is an intense, heartbreaking, and ultimately cathartic novel about memory, guilt, and shock that operates in “real time” to process an unfathomable experience.
Set in the days and weeks following the attacks, THE GOOD LIFE is a tender novel about how people left in the wake of tragedy try to find redemption, and often find it in one another. It centers around a married mother who begins to volunteer at Ground Zero in an attempt to find meaning, purpose, and distraction. There, she meets a businessman in search of the same thing, and as they work side by side, they form a bond that changes both their lives forever.
Nine year-old Oskar Schell is on a mission: find the lock that matches a strange key his father left him before he was killed in the World Trade Center. As he journeys through New York City ‘s five boroughs and meets people from all walks of life, all surviving in their own way, he ultimately finds peace. What’s most impressive is Jonathan Safran Foer’s ability to capture the perspective of a child who does not necessarily need to know what has happened or why—he only knows that his father is gone.
Meet Oskar Schell, an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist, correspondent with Stephen Hawking and Ringo Starr. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York. His mission is to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
THE SUBMISSION begins with a panel’s selection of a design for a memorial commemorating a devastating attack on Manhattan, and the swift realization that the anonymous architect is an American Muslim. Claire Burwell, the only widow of the group, defends the decision—but when that information is made public, she is suddenly at the center of controversy and chaos. This debut novel raises questions about the role of art, politics, memory, and identity in public spaces that make for fascinating—and passionate—conversation. It’s perfect for book clubs.
This novel is a bit more experimental than the others (perfect for fans of Kafka or Joseph Heller), but is just as extraordinary. Brian Remy is a cop—a hero, really—who wakes up after shooting himself in the head and embarks on a journey through a foreign yet familiar city covered in smoke and seemingly disconnected from the rest of time, dominated by a Machiavellian leader named “The Boss” and an entire cottage industry revolving around exploiting tragedy. It’s a thought-provoking story of forgiveness, accountability, and culpability that will have you going back for a second read to see what you missed.
In the disconnection and distortion of daily life after the attacks, Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born New Yorker, stumbles upon the city’s cricket subculture, where he finds a link to his childhood and becomes friends with a Trinidadian man named Chuck. As they begin to share their life stories with one another, they discover that they are more alike than they thought. This is a touching and unforgettable portrait of “otherness” and the contemporary immigrant experience, set in a place and time where nationalism is at an all-time high, which makes for a complex and unique read.
This is the only graphic novel on this list, and deserves to be counted among the ranks of great 21st century art/literature. Masterful and moving, IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS was the first book of comics Art Spiegelman published since his modern classic, MAUS, recounting his experience of the events and aftermath of 9/11. It not only captures the horrors of the day, but the paranoia, anger, fear, and concern that emerged as the US began to look outward for answers. It is a poignant reflection on political response to personal pain, and the distortion that can happen between those two extremes.
Renata is a 34-year-old, fiercely independent New York librarian who likes to keep her business—and past—to herself, preferring the trust and reliability of books over people, and measuring the experiences of imagined worlds over the real one. That is, until she meets a man named Jack, and, as she crosses the Brooklyn Bridge one clear September morning, sees the skyline collapse before her. Written with compassion and conviction, THE WRITING ON THE WALL explores the way in which perspective shifts when tragedy strikes, and how lives can be defined by things we cannot control.
Mohsin Hamid’s novel should be required reading for anyone looking to understand the event from all sides. Changez is a Pakistani immigrant living the American dream, with an elite career and a beautiful girlfriend, when 9/11 changes everything. Suddenly, people look at him differently, and his proclamations of love for his adopted country seem worthless to those around him—and as the cultural relations continue to shift, so does Changez’s outlook. This book is a powerful reminder of what happens to those caught in the middle of extreme situations, the influence of prejudice in the wake of disaster, and how every action has an equal, opposite reaction.
Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by an elite valuation firm. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his budding romance with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore. But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned and his relationship with Erica shifting. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.
In the spring of 2001, New York-based college friends Marina, Danielle, and Julian are all coming to terms with the role they are hoping to play in the world when two new arrivals, an ambitious Australian named Ludovic and an immature, idealistic dropout named Frederick upset the group dynamic. This novel sits squarely in the “aftermath” side of the 9/11 fiction spectrum, and most references to the event are passing or environmental, but it is a nonetheless important and intimate look into the intellectual, social, and economic responses to the attacks.
Thomas Pynchon’s acclaimed novel begins after the towers have fallen, when Silicon Valley is seemingly stalled and the dot-com bubble is about to burst. Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator living on the Upper West Side, finds herself knee-deep in thrilling, page-turning chaos after looking into the finances of a computer-security firm and its billionaire CEO. BLEEDING EDGE is actually a hilarious read, riffing off the absurdity of devastating large-scale events and the clarity they can provide.